Nothing says “fall” like our sudden willingness to subject ourselves to deliberate disorientation in fields of corn. Unfortunately for the direction-deficient, as corn maze creators become more technologically savvy — GPS and drones have become as ubiquitous as tractors — the corny labyrinths are only becoming more difficult to solve. That means the old escape-strategy standby — the right-hand-on-the-wall trick — may no longer work.
The “wall follower” rule, as it’s known among maze-solving experts, is simple: If you put your right hand on a corn maze wall and walk, it will, eventually, lead you to the exit (which might very well be the way you came in). Sounds simple, right? But here’s the catch: The rule only works if the maze is simply connected. Scholars of topology use this term to describe a maze that consists of walls that are all connected to the outside wall, like this hedge maze in the St. Louis Botanical Gardens:
In a maze like this, putting one hand on the wall and moving in one direction will ensure you won’t wind up in the same place twice; tracing the outline of the walls will, inevitably, lead you to an exit (which may very well be way you entered). Simple mazes are like a loop of knotted string simply deformed into labyrinthine paths; if you were to stretch out that string, it would form a circle, and following the wall would eventually lead you back to the knot.
But today’s mazes are not so simply connected. When a corn maze includes islands — that is, walls that are not connected to the outer perimeter — using the wall-follower rule could lead you in circles. Imagine, for example, deciding to put your right hand on the wall of Taylor Swift’s pupil. You’d literally get lost in her eyes!
A similar thing happened in 2011 to a family in Danvers, Massachusetts that got so lost in a corn maze that local police had to be called in. Maze experts interviewed by the New York Times explained that the presence of bridges and crossovers — complications present in today’s elaborate mazes — rendered the wall-follower technique “unhelpful.”
What, then, are intrepid corn maze enthusiasts supposed to do in the case of irreparable lostness? Don’t panic, for one, and keep your fingers crossed that a drone will come find you. After all, maze makers don’t have to be the only ones benefiting from technology’s advance.